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Scientists fighting to prevent invasive lanternfly from coming to Western PA

Dillon Carr
| Tuesday, March 28, 2017, 9:12 p.m.
Spotted lanternfly adult with wings spread showing colorful hind wing.
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
Spotted lanternfly adult with wings spread showing colorful hind wing.
Lateral view of an adult Lycorma delicatula, also known as the Spotted Lanternfly.
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
Lateral view of an adult Lycorma delicatula, also known as the Spotted Lanternfly.
Spotted Lanternfly.
Spotted Lanternfly.

A significant portion of Pennsylvania's agriculture industry is in the hands of scientists as they fight the westward spread of an invasive insect: the spotted lanternfly.

“It's not there yet, and we hope it never gets there,” said Emelie Swackhammer, spokeswoman for Penn State Extension in Montgomery County.

The pest first arrived in Pennsylvania — and the United States — in September 2014 when it showed up in Berks County. It now is found in 75 municipalities across six counties in eastern Pennsylvania, which have been quarantined and where strict measures have been implemented to kill the insect.

Since 2015, the state has received about $2.3 million in federal assistance to help eradicate the spotted lanternfly. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has identified the state's grapes, stone fruits and hardwood industries being the most threatened. Combined, they amount to about $12.2 billion annually in state revenue.

Pennsylvania leads the country in hardwood exports, said Wayne Bender, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hardwoods Council.

“The risk is if world markets would say they don't want wood from Pennsylvania because of this bug,” Bender said.

The spotted lanternfly, or Lycorma delicatula, lays its eggs on a variety of smooth surfaces, including debarked logs awaiting export in shipping yards.

Bender said the hardwood industry has responded to the risk of the insect spreading by complying with inspections and restricting loggers from moving timber from quarantined areas. Scientists are researching whether fumigation of logs would kill egg masses, Bender said.

In a letter to the Department of Agriculture, National Grape Cooperative Region Manager Robert Smith showed his support for the eradication of the insect. Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation in Concord grape production, he said.

“If this pest breaches the quarantine area, it has the potential to move northward to the Lake Erie grape-growing region, where another 20,000 acres of grapes in New York State would be at risk,” Smith wrote, adding there are many food and habitat sources for the insect in the state. “The economic effects on the region could be devastating for both Pennsylvania and New York grape growers.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the value of grape production in Pennsylvania in 2015 was $24.6 million.

The 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, the latest data available, shows 1,015 acres of apples, 229 acres of stone fruits and 153 acres of grapes scattered throughout Pennsylvania's southwest region.

However, Bob Pollock with the Indiana County Penn State Extension office said all agriculture is possibly threatened by the pest.

“I'm not sure we completely know yet all the species that could be attacked,” he said.

Camouflaged spotted lanternfly egg masses look like a splash of mud, said Sven Spichiger, a Department of Agriculture entomologist.

“It's not too hard to picture a stack of products sitting under a tree line and the egg masses dropping onto the product,” Spichiger said, making the chance extremely high of the spotted lanternfly moving to Western Pennsylvania, where stone fruits and grapes are cultivated.

He called the insect an adept hitchhiker. “And it's prolific in reproduction.”

The spotted lanternfly hatches from eggs in May and goes through four immature stages, called nymphas, according to Penn State Extension. During its first three stages, the insect is small, black and speckled with white spots. By the fourth stage, reached around July, the insect's appearance changes to red and black with white spots. Adults, which also begin to form in July, have underwings that are red and black. The upperwings are gray with black spots.

Spichiger speculates the insect came to the United States through international trade and could continue its spread to other countries.

“It's hard to say for certain where it came from. We really don't get ourselves in the business of pointing fingers,” Spichiger said when asked how the insect ended up in Pennsylvania.

According to an entomology database maintained by the French Museum of Natural History, and one Penn State researchers reference, the pest has been found in China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Preliminary research indicates it could have origins in Bangladesh. However, the data is not yet conclusive, said Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Shannon Powers.

The quarantine also includes a strategy to kill the Tree of Heaven — the insect's favorite for feeding, mating and egg-laying. The tree, according to Penn State Extension, is an invasive species from China that grows in developed, agricultural and forested areas.

Spichiger said the insect, a plant hopper, has wreaked havoc on a private hops garden and some grapes in Berks County. He said the insect feeds on plant stems, which in turn builds up too much sugar within the bug.

“So its waste becomes like this honeydew substance that coats everything around where they're feeding,” Spichiger said.

That substance supports the growth of sooty mold, which is a black substance that causes leaves to wither and if it spreads to the fruit makes it unmarketable, he said. The substance also attracts stinging insects.

Swackhammer said female spotted lanternflies can each lay up to two egg masses, which hold 30 to 50 eggs apiece.

“It could be on firewood, lawn furniture, fence posts, tire rims, barrels, picnic tables, basically anything that's stored outside,” she said. People who travel to quarantined areas should take caution when traveling back to wherever they came from, she said.

Said Spichiger, “They could take a meal from the tree and lay eggs on anything close by, like a line of boxcars at a railroad. And it only takes a few minutes to lay the eggs. So it could spread all over the country.”

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1298 or dcarr@tribweb.com.

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